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Overview of Hinduism. Fr. Llane Briese — World Religions. Statistical Overview. Part One. Statistics. Hinduism: The major religion of India Approx. 830 million Hindus throughout the world 800 million in India 30 million outside India

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Overview of hinduism

Overview of Hinduism

Fr. Llane Briese — World Religions


  • Hinduism: The major religion of India

  • Approx. 830 million Hindus throughout the world

    • 800 million in India

    • 30 million outside India

  • Hinduism is really quite diverse, defying an exact definition:

    • “The term ‘Hinduism’ is used here and throughout this work as a convenient shorthand, and as at least a reminder tat there are certain constituent characteristics of the connected ‘Indian religions’ which enable a Hindu to be picked out from a Muslim, say, or a Sikh, even though no particular Hindu movement or village, person or philosophy, will necessarily exhibit them all.” (“Hinduism”, ODWR, p. 430)


  • Persian word hindu (from Sanskrit sindhu, ‘river’) refers to that which pertains to the Indus River valley, and thus simply ‘Indian’.

  • Hinduism is the makeshift name to describe the religious heritage of India.

  • Hence, once again, the history and development of the religion is very important.

  • Excursus: Respect for the Diversity within a Religion

The emergence of hinduism
The Emergence of Hinduism

  • Hinduism has no founder (at least not in the sense of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism); rather it is more accurate to say that it emerged.

  • Analogy of the Banyan Tree: branches grow in multiple directions so that it is difficult to determine which was the original tree trunk.

  • Three contributing factors:

    • Vedic religion of Indo-Aryans

    • Brahminical sacrificial rituals called bhakti (Skt. “devotion”)

    • Asceticism and meditation of Jains and Buddhists.

  • Term “hindu” was first used by British imperialists.

Indus valley period 3000 1500 b c
Indus Valley Period (3000-1500 B.C.)

  • Evidence of the roots of Hinduism

  • 1500 B.C.: Nomadic Aryans entered the Indus Valley region from Central Asia (likely near the Black Sea) and brought language and scriptures.

  • Vedas: Ancient Scriptures written in Sanskrit; these texts form the basis of Hinduism.

    • For centuries, existed only orally; only committed to writing after the Muslims arrived in India.

    • Why do you think the Vedas were committed to writing?

Brahminical period 1500 300 b c
Brahminical Period (1500-300 B.C.)

  • After intermarriage between Indo-Aryans and the indigenous peoples, and their migration to the Ganges River area in northern India, a civilization flourished (by around 900 B.C.).

  • The Brahmins were Vedic priests who offered ritual sacrifices (very expensive).

  • Brahmanas: commentaries on the rituals

  • Many of these commentaries were included with the Vedas in the shruti(earliest Hindu scriptures)

Brahminical period 1500 300 b c1
Brahminical Period (1500-300 B.C.)

  • Between 550 B.C. and 300 A.D., gurus began to emerge. These are Hindu teachers and guides in philosophical and spiritual matters.

  • The gurus trained followers in bhakti, devotion to the gods which sought liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Classical period 300 1200 a d
Classical Period (300-1200 A.D.)

  • The defining period for the differentiation of Hinduism as a unique religion.

  • Sanskrit gave way to the vernacular, allowing the religion to reach the masses.

  • In the minds of the people, the smriti became more popular than the shruti. The former were more popular literature including two great epics, the Mahaharata (includes the Bhagavad Gita) and the Ramayana.

Classical period 300 1200 a d1
Classical Period (300-1200 A.D.)

  • Paradigm shift from the transcendent to the immanent.

  • A shift from an emphasis on the “big eternal questions” to internal transformation.

  • Two key Hindu concepts emerge during this period:

    • Reincarnation: the rebirth into new lives after death; hence humans experience an ongoing migration from life to death to new life (Samsara)

    • Karma: belief that the form of life in the next life would be based by behavior in the current life. (This term is often used improperly and casually in modern U.S. culture.)

  • To fight the Samsara cycle, Hindus pursued the Ways of Action, Wisdom, and Devotion.

  • Caste system emerged during this time period.

Hindu muslim period 1200 1600 a d
Hindu-Muslim Period (1200-1600 A.D.)

  • Late 7th century: Muslim traders had reached India.

    • Under which caliphate did this occur?

  • By 1021, Muslims had conquered northwest section of India (m.d. Pakistan).

    • Muslims taxed Hindus the way they had taxed Jews and Christians in N. Africa and Spain.

  • 12th-13th centuries: Muslims entered the interior of India, and sultans administered the country from Delhi.

Hindu muslim period 1200 1600 a d1
Hindu-Muslim Period (1200-1600 A.D.)

  • 16th century: The Mughals (also Muslim) further expanded Islam into India with varied tolerance for Hinduism.

  • Akbar (1556-1605) attempted syncretism between Islam and Hinduism without success.

  • Relations between the two groups soon after deteriorated.

    • What would cause the conflict between Islam and Hinduism?

  • Two key Hindu figures who integrated Islam into their thought:

    • Kabir (1440-1518): Hindu poet influenced by Islam.

    • Nanak (1459-1539): Founded Sikhism.

Modern period 1600 present
Modern Period (1600-Present)

  • 18th century: British imperialism

    • What led to the Boston Tea Party?

    • What came to India as a result of British colonization?

  • Under British rule, the Indian social fabric (including the caste system) came under attack, as did the beliefs of Hinduism.

  • Tension with Islam continued, culminating in the establishment of Pakistan in 1947 as a separate nation.

  • Kashmir region is still disputed between the two nations.

Modern period 1600 present1
Modern Period (1600-Present)

  • Mahatma (“Great Soul”) Gandhi: advocated the equality of all religions, as well as non-violence and passive resistance to UK rule.

  • Gandhi: credited with the withdrawal of Britain from India after WW2.

  • Gandhi: Assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu who felt that he had been overly accommodating to Muslims.

  • Late 20th century: Hinduism begins to transcend the borders of India.

The shruti
The Shruti

  • Shruti: The most sacred writings of Hinduism; believed to be revealed to ancient seers by the gods and cannot be changed.

    • Examples:

      • Rig Veda (~1300 B.C.): Hymns to various gods

      • Soma Veda (~9th c. B.C.): Hymns for some sacrifices

      • Yajur Veda: Prose texts containing instructions for priests.

      • Atharva Veda (7th c. B.C.): Hymns for domestic use.

      • Upanisheds: Cycle of rebirth as based on human actions.

The smriti
The Smriti

  • Smriti: Less authoritative; contain Hindu traditions passed down orally.

    • Examples:

      • Mahabharata: Hindu epic which describes a war between two families over an inheritance.

        • Vishnu: Has been incarnated 9x; 10th will be end of the world.

        • Krishna: an avatar of Vishna.

      • Ramayana: Epic about Prince Rama; forced into exile with his wife and brother

      • Puranas: Stories about three gods of Hindus: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (popular among the lower castes; miracle stores and emphasis on personal deities).

The deities
The Deities

  • Again, Hinduism is diverse; this is a generalization:

  • Hindus believe in many deities, but most would agree that they are various images of the singular ultimate reality called Brahman.

  • The deities (gods/goddesses) have attributes; Brahman is purely transcendent.

    • What is the difference between the Hindu conception of Brahman and the Muslim conception of Allah?

The deities1
The Deities

  • 3 primary manifestations of Brahman are dominant, encompassing the life cycle:

    • Brahma: Creator god

    • Vishnu: Preserving god

    • Shiva: Destroying god

  • An avatar is the incarnation of a god(dess) who entered the world in bodily form to rid it of evil.

  • Other deities:

    • Parvati: Divine Mother; associated with Shiva.

    • Saraswati: goddess of learning (assoc. with Brahma)

    • Lakshimi: goddess of prosperity, good fortune, and beauty (assoc. with Vishnu).

Atman and the true self
Atman and the True Self

  • Brahman, the absolute reality, is believed to be the essence of all that exists. Therefore, Brahman is identical to the true self of the individual. This true self is called atman.

  • For Hindus, the senses, body, and feelings do not constitute the person’s true self; they are but illusions (mayain Sanskrit).

  • Atman is the permanent reality in a person; everything else is only temporary and illusory.

  • Only rigorous discipline (yoga) can help individuals discover their true self, that is, to attain moksha.


  • Like the seasons, for Hindus, life goes through a perpetual cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This cycle is called samsara.

  • Based on the moral principle of karma, after a person’s death, reincarnation occurs into another body based on that person’s behavior in a prior life.

  • In other words, one’s eternal atman never dies, but passes from body to body until moksha.


  • Not just an exercise plan!

  • Yoga consists of three spiritual disciplines:

    • Knowledge

    • Good Deeds

    • Devotion

  • Question: Some Catholics (and Christians in general) argue that doing yoga for exercise is antithetical to the Christian faith? Agree or disagree?

Sacredness of life
Sacredness of Life

  • Because Brahman is believed to be the essence of everything, everything is sacred.

  • Ahimsa: the desire not to harm any living thing.

  • One practical application of ahimsa is the satyagrahaof Gandhi in which Indians passively resisted the British imperialists without resorting to violence.

Caste system
Caste System

  • The caste system is linked to the belief in karma. Hence, poverty (being a member of a lower caste) is believed to be the fault of the poor person for actions in a previous life (although caste-related discrimination is now illegal in India):

  • 4 Castes:

    • Priests (Brahmins)

    • Warriors (Kshatriyas)

    • Farmers/Merchants (Vaishya)

    • Servants (Shudra)

4 pursuits and 4 stages of life
4 Pursuits and 4 Stages of Life

  • Four Major Pursuits of Life:

    • Dharma: Duties and social obligations

    • Artha: Pursuit of material and political wealth

    • Kama: Pursuit of pleasure (artistic, recreational, sensual)

    • Moksha: Final liberation from samsara

  • Four Stages of Life (for a male):

    • Brahmancarin: Learning from a guru the Hindu tradition

    • Grihastha: Being a householder

    • Vanaprastha: Living as a hermit; away from the world.

    • Sannyasin: Spiritual pilgrim who pursues moksha.

Hinduism sacred times places
Hinduism: Sacred Times & Places

Hindu calendar
Hindu Calendar

  • Lunar calendar (with seven months added every 19 years to make up the shortage of days)—not universal; six seasons instead of four.

  • Major festivals:

    • Diwali: Festival of lights; celebrates return of Rama (7th avatar of Vishnu) after 14-year exile.

    • Holi: Spring festival; commemorates loves between Krishna and Radha

  • A number of major celebrations during the life cycle.

Sacred places
Sacred Places

  • Temples: Usually dedicated to a particular deity where a brahmin (priest) performs puja, a ceremony honoring a god(dess).

  • Home Shrines: Contain a murti(statue or other representation) of a god(dess) for small family celebrations.

  • Ganges River: The site of many different temples; the most sacred place for Hindus.